Saturday 7 March 2015

On the Waterfront

There’s a scene from the Marlon Brando film ‘On the Waterfront’ that I always remember. Each morning the mob chooses who will work that day and who will not. Eventually, the workers are made to scramble on the ground and fight for the chance to work. A priest witnessing the scene says that nowhere else would stand for this, to which one of the workers replies “The waterfront’s tougher, Father, like it aint part of America”. It is from this point on that the priest sets out to confront this corruption and inequality. There is inequality, too in Scotland, but it is not the inequality that politicians so often talk about. The injustice that I want to write about is in the contrast between the treatment of workers who live within a few miles of each other.

I have a couple of friends who came to Scotland around the same time that I came back. I don’t see them often as they live quite far from Aberdeenshire, but we keep in touch by phone and e-mail. I’ve known them for many years as we went to the same university in Russia. Nadezhda, Nadia for short, was fortunate. She ended up working at a university. Svetlana, or Sveta, was less fortunate: she found herself working for a further education college. The nature of funding for these two types of organisations is quite different. Because of the SNP’s choice to maintain free tuition to frequently relatively well-off university students, the money available for further education colleges has dwindled. One consequence of this is that staff are frequently left on zero hours contracts. Sveta found that taking into account preparation time she was getting paid less than the minimum wage. So she decided to look elsewhere for work. Eventually, she found herself working for a large discount supermarket. I should emphasise here that the firm she works for is not little or anything that even resembles little.

We all like to save money on our shopping or at least most of us do. I still see people in Aberdeenshire buying the most expensive brands as if the oil industry is going to go on forever. But wiser ants save as much as they can and stock up for the hard times. I love discount supermarkets. The quality is excellent and the prices sometimes hardly seem possible. But I didn’t know until recently the full cost of what I was buying.

In Russia we’re used to employees having hardly any rights. If a waitress drops a plate, she’s liable to have the cost taken out of her wages. Someone can work diligently for 30 years and suddenly find that corruption means they’re driven out of their work by threats and bullying. Someone running a mildly successful business can find that someone from the mob arrives, points a gun at their head and tells them to give the business away. You accept these things in Russia, because it’s Russia and nothing can be done. But Scotland, of course, is different. Isn’t it?

Sveta worked at her supermarket for a while and seemed to be getting on well enough. The work is quite hard, often physical, but she needed the job and did her best. She passed her probation period and for the first time in Scotland was getting a regular amount of money. But for reasons unknown a manager had taken a dislike to her. This manager kept telling her off in front of the customers and kept being extremely rude to her. Eventually, she complained to one of the senior managers about this treatment. He appeared to take her side and accept that the treatment she had been receiving was unacceptable. The next time she was at work the manager of the store said he would deal with the situation. But soon she found that far from the situation improving, it now had become far worse. Now other managers decided that they, too, had a problem with how she was working. Now she was told that she was useless, that she was the worst worker in the shop. She was given tasks to perform against the clock. Everything she did was monitored. She wrote a letter of complaint out of desperation. Again the management of the organisation appeared to agree that she was being treated in an unacceptable way, but again after a short time the bullying increased. Soon the situation became so bad that she had to go to the doctor because of stress. She was in tears constantly and fearful even to do the job she had previously enjoyed. After a single day’s absence, because of stress, her first since beginning the job, she was questioned on her return, by one of the managers. “Was it because of me that you were off work with stress?” he asked. What sort of answer can a stressed worker give to such a question? He then made her sign a form which said that if she was off sick for one more day in the following six months she would be fired.

It’s tougher in a discount supermarket, Father, like it’s not part of Scotland.

Contrast Sveta’s experience with Nadia’s. Where Nadia works almost no-one is fired under any circumstance whatsoever. She has a colleague who began work in the same office a number of years ago. This person has never learned the job that they do in that office and still can’t perform it to any reasonable standard. One reason for this is because of continual absence. For the first few years they heard a variety of ailments given as reasons for absence, until in the end, the reason for absence was not even given. It was simply an underlying condition which you were not allowed to ask about. Occupational health were involved as were human resources, but nothing was ever done. It became clear eventually that so long as you turned up for work once or twice ever four to six months you were in no danger of losing your job, even if you couldn’t actually do it.

My two friends work in the same town, yet the contrast between their treatment as workers in extraordinary. How can it be that the same employment laws can have such different results? There needs to be some balance. There’s something wrong if neither long term incompetence, nor absence are grounds for dismissal. This is not fair on colleagues who have to do the work of those who are absent and unable. But neither is it right that the price of our cheap shopping is a management style that merely pays lip service to the idea that workers should not be bullied. When verbal and written complaints about treatment lead to an increase in bullying, it begins to look as if this is the policy of an organisation that depends on such bullying to drive down costs.

Sveta told me that she would not expect to receive such treatment in a workplace even in Russia. She’s right. It’s tougher in Scotland, at least for those working On the Waterfront.

If you like my writing, you can find my books Scarlet on the Horizon (book, Kindle), An Indyref Romance (book, Kindle) and Complete Works (book, Kindle) on Amazon. I appreciate your support.